Brain Hacking 101: Spaced Repetition Equals Success

We have all had that dream: An alarm rings and you realize with horror that you are in the middle of your AP Bio exam and can’t remember a thing. In a cold sweat, you wake up and read your pile of flash cards, frantically cramming. The info from chapter twenty is fresh, but when you review chapter one, well, that’s another story.

You probably didn’t do so well. The problem is not that AP Bio is impossible, or that you don’t possess the capacity to learn, or that your memory is bad, or you should give up on life and live in a box. What you need to do is make a choice: Do you want to work with your brain or against it?

Work with Your Brain

The human brain has an astonishing capacity to remember information. Suresh Kumar Shamra, the world record holder for memorizing digits of pi, can recall over 70,000 digits — 70,030, to be precise. At the annual World Memory Championships, participants compete to recall numbers, faces with names, spoken words, or playing cards. Current champion Alex Mullen became the first to memorize the order of a deck of playing cards in under twenty seconds.

Remember, Remember, Remember

It is easy to think that these memory champions must be geniuses — except for the fact that they are not. In Moonwalking with Einstein, exceedingly regular guy Joshua Foer describes his journey from freelance journalist to the 2006 USA Memory Champion. Ben Pridmore, Dominick O’Brien, and other mnemonists (memory experts) often stress that they’re no more intelligent than average. The only difference is that they work with their brain’s natural ability to memorize and optimize their brain’s power for the greatest effect. One of the most effective techniques many of these mnemonists use is spaced repetition, a highly specialized form of review.

Best Brain Hack: Spaced Repetition

In high school and college, we discovered that review magnifies your memory ability. Ironically, we often spend too much time strengthening information we have already mastered because we like to reward ourselves. Knowing that manzana means apple feels great and forgetting when to use estar doesn’t, so we put that flash card aside. Unfortunately, those are usually the cards we need to study most.

One of the most effective revolutions in memory technology has been the development of computer-based spaced repetition systems — flash card makers like Brainscape that allow concepts to be reviewed in a pattern calibrated to your pace of learning. Distributed repetition of information allows you to focus intensely on the cards you don’t really know while spacing out the cards you are confident about and returning to them occasionally to keep the information fresh.

To go back to that horrible final exam dream because you do not have to be a genius. You just have to optimize your brain’s incredible ability to remember. Spaced repetition systems like Brainscape will make sure you don’t forget chapter one. Next time, have a great night’s sleep.


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